Sanya Khan is a recent graduate of Colleyville Heritage High School in Colleyville, Texas, and has been a volunteer Youth Ambassador with the Aga Khan Foundation USA, which works to end poverty in Africa and Asia. Her previous blog post described a community service project with elementary school students in a low-income neighborhood. 

In my freshman year of high school, Sundays soon became the new Fridays for me. I couldn’t wait to wake up at 8am and drive to a meeting where I could express my ideas and work with intelligent team members who shared the same dreams. That’s when I started with the Dallas branch of the Aga Khan Foundation Youth Ambassadors, entering the program wide-eyed and ready to make a difference. At the first meeting, I learned about the Youth Ambassadors’ goals of locally engaging in projects that are in line with the Foundation’s work globally.

Beginning in Central Asia

My love for the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) started when I was about 12 years old. My uncle traveled to Tajikistan with Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FOCUS), and came back with stories of the work they conducted in the rural villages. He spoke about the damage that natural disasters brought upon the villages and how devastating these landslides and earthquakes were. I remember his fascinating stories about the innovative solutions that he and his team had come up with only weeks after the disaster. His accounts of the poor living conditions were chilling. After that I wanted to learn more and even travel with him to see it firsthand. The work done through FOCUS sparked my curiosity, and I began to research the works of all the agencies in the Aga Khan Development Network, established by the Aga Khan. Joining the Youth Ambassador program was a natural next step.

As an ambassador, I attended a series of training sessions including leadership training. This allowed me to assist in multiple local projects. We adopted Barron Elementary School, an “at risk” school in a low-income neighborhood of Plano, Texas, with the idea of enhancing literacy and improving the school’s environment. We began with meeting the principal and school staff to conduct a needs assessment. We submitted a proposal to paint a mural in the school’s library. The mural, with the theme of native Texas plants and animals, surrounded an amphitheater and provided an inviting space for students to read and do homework. The project was a success.

Stoked by such a great outcome, our team of youth ambassadors next set our sights on renovating an outdoor area of the school. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to lead this project. We started with proposals to create a rockery and music garden. Once the initial planning was complete, we met with the principal to get district approval for the garden. Then came the implementation. We involved students and teachers in the renovation process.

Sustainability is a key element in all AKF projects globally. To ensure that our project would be sustainable, the Barron students started an environment club where they learned how to take care of the plants.

Seeing the positive results, an herb garden was created through a similar process. The smiles on the faces of the students when they came out to help with the gardens were incredibly humbling. The impact these projects had on the Barron Elementary students became a driving force as I considered a future in international development.

Gaining Confidence and Leadership

Over the course of three years as a Youth Ambassador, my love for the Foundation’s work turned into a passion. I knew that I wanted to enhance the lives of those who were impoverished. The stories I’ve heard all my life and the things I’ve learned through the Youth Ambassadors have motivated me to be a part of something much greater. The leadership positions I was offered with the Youth Ambassador program, initially as the Communications Officer and later as Co-President, gave me the confidence to pursue this line of thought. With that in mind, I will join the University of Southern California as a freshman in January 2015. I intend to major in Health and Humanity, and plan to attend medical school in the future specializing in neonatology or women’s health. While at the University, I hope to start a University Ambassador group, adapting the model of the Youth Ambassadors.

This year is my final year with the Youth Ambassadors and the first year I do not hold an officer position. It is amazing to watch the new members take ownership of the program. Their ideas for future projects are innovative and the way they set up the Village in Action this year at Dallas Partnership Walk was phenomenal – it definitely surpassed my expectations. The program has expanded to incorporate Art, Stage and Innovative Solutions Challenge competitions to raise awareness and create change both locally and globally.

A passion to serve the community has become an integral part of my life. For some, “the dream” is singing at sold-out concerts or being on the cover of every magazine. In my eyes, the dream is simple: I want to go to sleep every night knowing that I made a difference in the life of someone less fortunate than me.